Combatting Erosion in Public Trust through Digital Performance Reporting

February 3, 2016 7:00 am PDT | Data as a Service, Effective Governing

A recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trust found that Americans’ trust in government has reached its lowest levels in over 50 years — only 19 percent of Americans stated that they can trust the federal government always or most of the time. This erosion in trust was mirrored by respondents’ view that government is frustrating and badly managed.

The United States has long held, as a central tenant of our national identity, the notion that ours should be the exemplar democratic state and that we have a responsibility to uphold that model for other nations. It is antithetical to this belief that our citizens feel like their government is a separate entity from them — that it is outside of them, that it does not serve them, and that it is not accountable to them.

It is incumbent on governments at all levels to find ways to change these perceptions and experiences of citizens. Efforts to demonstrate accountability and be accessible and open to citizens have the potential to make this change. One particular strategy that can help in these efforts is effectively communicating information about the performance of government programs. Interestingly, the Pew survey points to the potentially positive impact that speaking to citizens about specific aspects of government performance might have. For example, when survey respondents were asked to rate government’s performance in specific areas, the balance of opinion about government performance was more positive than negative:

Survey respondents indicated they expected (and wanted) government to play a major role in addressing key challenges such as maintaining infrastructure, strengthening the economy, ensuring income security for the elderly, and addressing poverty. In 10 of the 13 key challenges, the majority of respondents indicated that government is doing a good job.

When citizens think about specific areas of performance of the government, they are much more open to the potential that government is working well. Yet citizens do not have easy access to readily consumable information about their government’s performance. Such information — when it is available — is generally buried in lengthy documents. In addition, governments are generally reluctant to communicate performance information for fear that — especially if programs are not meeting their performance goals — they will only feed into the negative perceptions that the public already has of government.

Communicating through Performance Websites

Instead of searching through hundreds of pages of abstruse information in an annual performance report, what if a citizen could, in a moment of frustration, discover that their city’s road maintenance — despite the pothole they just hit — was among the most efficient and cost-effective among comparatively sized cities? What if this information was easy to find on a simply-named city performance website?

Many of Socrata’s customers have begun to communicate with citizens on the level of specific performance management. Kansas City, for instance, conducts a regular citizen survey so that it understands how its citizens view its service delivery. The city publishes those statistics on a website that provides data on performance up front and not buried in pages of administrative context. Likewise Montgomery County publishes extensive information on both the strategic outcomes that its programs seek to influence as well as operational objectives that the county controls directly.

These initiatives by Socrata’s customers to clearly communicate performance information represent significant analytic efforts. Nevertheless, while these efforts represent time and creative analysis by government staff, they are well within the reach of cities, counties, states, and federal agencies. It is difficult, but when you consider the budget and resources of a city the size of Kansas City in comparison to much larger cities or Montgomery County to a state or federal agency, it is intuitively obvious that such an effort can be managed in a cost-effective manner.

A Look at Performance Reporting in St. Louis County

St. Louis County recently embarked on a project to more effectively communicate its performance to citizens. It did so by implementing several best practice approaches to developing performance-based information. First, St. Louis County engaged in a strategic approach to developing its performance goals, identifying big picture outcomes that the government wanted to affect on behalf of its citizens — such as improving financial viability of the county and ensuring the well-being of citizens. It linked those outcomes to activities and measurable outputs of programs it was funding.

In doing so, St. Louis County will be able to show its citizens that it is directing financial and other resources to the issues that most citizens are concerned with. These are powerful messages. It says, “We care about what you care about, and here is how we are trying to build a better community for you.” Conveying both high level strategic outcomes and operational measures is a best practice approach to communicating performance information, with the potential to change citizen perception and engagement.

Furthermore, finding ways of communicating this information in a readily accessible and easy to understand manner is a critical aspect of such an endeavor. St. Louis completed the analytic work of developing thoughtful meaningful goals, and now they are working toward making that easily accessible to its citizens. Rather than buried in a three hundred page PDF, the message and data are the first things that citizens will interact with.

Not every citizen will seek data on their government’s performance. However, when an individual has questions about whether a 311 call was addressed, how quickly 911 calls are responded to in their neighborhood, or whether the number of urgent care centers is changing, having a website with readily available answers can fundamentally change perceptions because it shows citizens that their government is working for them.

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